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Sunday, June 24, 2007

America The Beautiful

I wonder if we’ll ever see another Revolutionary War drama in theatres. D.W. Griffith might have speculated as much after his disappointment with America in 1924. Mel Gibson would go there many years later with The Patriot, which by all rights should have outgrossed The Perfect Storm on opening weekend, but didn’t. Is the War For Independence too long ago to care about, or is it those costumes and men with pigtails? Producers of Revolution thought they’d overcome the jinx in 1985, but found (to considerable loss) that in some aspects, audiences do not change. Griffith’s America is assumed to have failed because everyone knows Revolutionary War subjects fail --- but certainly no one was aware when DWG tackled the subject for the first time on a large scale. The resulting stigma has lingered since, not overcome even by America’s one million in domestic rentals that bested most of Mary Pickford’s United Artists vehicles of the period, or its status as one of the five most popular attractions of 1924. The real problem was huge sums spent and a drumbeat of publicity that anticipated the second coming of The Birth Of A Nation, king of silent era blockbusters and a success story every filmmaker aspired to repeat. Griffith had sufficient reason to expect as much with America. Loans he floated to complete it crawled toward three-quarters of a million. The New York Times quoted Griffith (shown here with admirer and future director Robert Florey) as having admitted a thirty-percent interest rate on notes he’d sign toward the end of production. Numbers flew as to how much America finally cost. The Times averred it was $1.3 million. Variety speculated something in the range of $950,000. Those who reap the real benefit of (Griffith’s) labors are the men with capital who have been willing to gamble on a Griffith production. The director shot America on New England locations where much of the actual Revolution took place. His own Mamaroneck, New York studio (aerial view shown here) was twenty-eight acres neighboring sites of historic incidents Griffith recreated. The US War Department supplied thousands of soldiers to enact battle sequences to the accompaniment of a thirty-three piece military band (DWG insisted on mood music even for combat). No one before or since could stage a clash of arms like Griffith. He leased three surrounding farms so as to open up the natural space for his armies to traverse. Amazing the outdoor miracles DWG accomplished with that hand-cranked box camera.

America was an epic still in production even after opening night. Previews were held from early February 1924, despite Griffith still awaiting snow for his essential Valley Forge sequence. On the very day audiences in South Norwalk, Connecticut were watching an initial cut of the feature, DWG was not many miles away shooting winter footage of General Washington and his troops suffering barefoot privations. The premiere saw America pared from sixteen reels down to a copyrighted fourteen, and Variety predicted much deletion may be done before the picture is fully set. What they didn’t know was that his crew was still working, and for at least a week after that opening. Footage adjudged an improvement would simply be spliced into circulating prints. Griffith took America on a roadshow tour for initial engagements. He picked up the tab for orchestras and promotion, but kept a greater share of the receipts. The director knew how to put on a grand show of his newest production (and surely understood showmanship, as witness this orgy sequence staged for the benefit of villainous Lionel Barrymore and henchmen). Women were said to have gasped and cried when Paul Revere took his famous ride. That remains a stirring highlight today, even in diminished prints surviving. We could imagine the impact original tinted and toned nitrate 35mm had on first-run audiences. Were viewers of that era lacking sound and color satisfied with less? I'd say not. In fact, the opposite was likely true. If we could sit for presentations the equal of what they had in 1924, I’ve no doubt a lot of us would find emotions turned loose in ways unexpected. My own (admittedly limited) experience with silent films and live orchestras are among my best remembered in theatres. Ben-Hur with seventy musicians once brought tears to these jaded eyes. Could I have stood such pounding on a weekly basis in palaces seating thousands, with dynamic accompaniment a commonplace? Likely I’d have sought treatment for an excess of bliss, for that is the only word I can summon for the movie going encounters those lucky people routinely had.

Most silent films are lost now. Many that survive are here by virtue of single surviving prints. America would be diced for footage others could use. Griffith’s battle scenes turned up in cheaper shows later on. After nitrate dust cleared, we were left with British source materials representing a version DWG prepared for UK audiences, its depiction of Redcoat perfidy softened for the Empire. There weren’t enough showings to challenge negative myths in circulation. William K. Everson defended America’s reputation before his silent film group in 1957 and called upon star Neil Hamilton to reminisce for the benefit of printed program notes. Blackhawk sold the feature in 8mm, but black-and-white editions were a disservice where night scenes called for blue tinting. Paul Revere’s ride played badly in what appeared to be broad daylight once color enhancements were lost. Silents are fragile in so many ways. Once rescued, they can still be ruined if not properly presented. Paul Killiam made a mess of a 94-minute version for video, burdened with superfluous narration. Who’s there to care about silent films? To narrow it further --- who cares about silents that aren’t funny? Sales figures for the DVD of America had to be dismal, especially as it came out at dawning of the format (1999). The DVD includes the tints, and is restored close as possible to the 1924 length. The original score is recreated by Eric Beheim and the Mamaroneck Theater Orchestra. Anyone tempted to dip a toe into dramatic silent waters might profitably begin with America

D.W. Griffith is a great pictorialist and dynamic storyteller, but get ready to commit when you’re running one of these: The Birth Of A Nation (draw the shades!), Intolerance (clear your calendar for at least the day), Broken Blossoms (unrelieved downer), and Orphans Of The Storm (Dame Fortune dealing harshly with the Gishes for a seeming eternity). America is in many ways a most accessible of the Griffith group. Maybe I just like Revolutionary War subjects that look as though they were actually shot during the Revolutionary War. Shows like The Patriot boast expertise to remind you they’re restaging events with modern devices unknown to silent era technicians, but what does that accomplish other than putting us at greater distance from historical incidents more compatible with Griffith’s ancient tools? Here’s another occasion where the older document, admittedly yellowed and timeworn, seizes verisimilitude others would strive for, but are too late to achieve. America was revived before a packed room in 2004. Applause at the Capital Theatre in Rome, NY was considerable. Sequences that stunned in 1924 did it again eighty years later. Some would carp over dated story conventions. Love surmounting class divisions and a family split over duty and honor were subjects dear to Griffith. Carol Dempster as feminine lead bespoke lapse of judgment on DWG’s part, but he was smitten with the girl offscreen as well as on, an explanation if not an excuse. Small payment in any case for what DWG delivers on the battlefield and town squares so scrupulously depicted (authentic pistols, drums, and other artifacts were loaned by various museums and historical societies). Griffith seemed quite the elder statesman helming America, having exhausted himself over fifteen or so years inventing screen narrative. Neil Hamilton confessed later of he and other players regarding the veteran as impossibly old. What a shock, then, to learn Griffith was only forty-seven and about to lose his independence as a filmmaker when America was released.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Getting Back Those Wide Screens

Who’d have thought Goldfinger would duplicate so identically the post-credits opening of Lucky Me? Both feature dazzling aerial views of Miami, then resort immediately to studio artifice. James Bond retreats to Pinewood soundstages, Doris Day to Warner’s backlot substitute for Miami sidewalks. Her Superstition Song, recalling Bobby Van’s downtown hop in Small Town Girl and anticipating Gene Kelly’s studio street tour (but at night and on skates) in It’s Always Fair Weather, suffers in comparison to numbers expertly staged at MGM and recipients of money and expertise forever denied Doris Day at economy-minded WB. Worth noting here is both Lucky Me and A Star Is Born being in production at the same time. Star was classified an independent production, though Warners poured resources into Judy Garland’s comeback unheard of since wartime expenditures for musicals far bigger than those they’d made lately. The still shown here is of Doris visiting Judy’s set. She couldn’t have been unmindful of the extended schedule (and budget) accorded A Star Is Born, nor the presence of famed director George Cukor, a technician the star no doubt coveted over Jack Donohue (Lucky Me), David Butler, and other journeymen assigned to her pictures. Day had what she described as a nervous breakdown just prior to Lucky Me. Her slow recovery was rewarded with a script she considered lousy in the extreme. I can’t remember much about the picture, she said in her memoirs, then goes on to detail desperate efforts to avoid being in it. What I didn’t want ... was to get involved in a project for which I had no enthusiasm. Apparently Doris Day did Lucky Me in a kind of stupor. Would that performers today deliver half so well at full strength. Amazing the energy she brings to a project completed in such circumstances. Whereas I was always able to get into a part with effortless vitality, now it was all I could do to get myself up to a performing level. Talk about professional discipline. Instead of whining themselves into rehab, troupers like Day just went and did it. All the more reason to admire a long gone generation of truly committed entertainers. Day’s self-proscribed therapy called for rests between takes in the dressing room and avoidance of interviews. Watching her belt out the numbers in Lucky Me, you’d never guess what an ordeal this was.

Roving vaudevillians were staples of many a thirties and (nostalgia flavored) forties musical, but how long were such archaic figures  among us? Lucky Me proposes they could, as late as 1954, tandem perform with movie shows in theatres like the one supposedly operating on a downtown Miami street. I had a hard time buying that conceit, and was driven to reference shelves for possible dates of vaude’s final fade as support for screen presentations. This New York Times ad is what I found. RKO’s Cool Palace, B’Way’s Only Vaudeville and Screen Show --- dated 1955. With One Desire plus eight big acts, it must have been quite the entertainment bargain for seventy cents, and imagine kicking things off at 10:45 AM. If indeed the Palace was Broadway’s last holdout for live spots between movies, you wonder how much stage action there was in metro theatres otherwise situated. Too many cloistered hours in the Warner writer’s building no doubt led to misconception among scribes far removed from changed reality of exhibition. The Parisian Revue staged by Doris Day and Company smacks of big-time vaudeville from summit years in the teens and twenties. The notion that shows like this were being staged between newsreels among starving urban houses in 1954 places Lucky Me square within a parallel universe.

Cinemascope was the screen novelty that really caught on. Other things thrown up against television wilted quickly. Installation of Cinerama was too expensive to gain wide acceptance, despite smash business in those few venues equipped to play it, and 3-D seemed to define a flash in the pan. You could install Cinemascope in your house without having to hock the place. Our own Allen Theatre was cursed with a building no wider than the old standard screen they’d been using (twenty-seven feet --- I measured it years after the 1962 fire). Owing to a product split, they played all Fox and Warner product. The Robe made the Allen in March of 1954. They resolved the width issue by simply clamping on an anamorphic lens and letting chips fall where they may, resulting in a picture shown as much upon side walls as the screen itself. WB men in the field likely shunned the Allen with its chump change seating capacity, so who's to care if backwoods patrons emerged from that benighted auditorium needing chiropractic attention? Besides, Warners was busy figuring ways to best Fox at widescreen Olympics by ordering up a competing system they could call their own. Time was of essence as 1953 gave way to a new (and for Fox, immensely profitable) year. Lucky Me was rushed out for a late March 1954 opening in Miami, setting for the film, but site of limited second unit lensing, as most of the feature was shot on Burbank home ground (WB having caved to the necessity of licensing Fox's Cinemascope trademark). Stars Robert Cummings, Phil Silvers, and Nancy Walker were guests of the Tri-Florida State Theatres chain, as shown here. Reviews were middling. Warners was relying less on inferior stuff they had in circulation than grandiose projects held in abeyance for future release. Jack Warner hosted a Cinemascope preview reel trumpeting ten forthcoming features (a trade ad for that shown here), almost all utilizing the wide process. A Star Is Born was the crown jewel of these and rough cuts were being sneaked to trade editors by the beginning of March, although the picture wouldn’t see release until September of 1954. By virtue of its March opening, Lucky Me managed to be among those first musicals exhibited in Cinemascope (it beat MGM’s Rose Marie into theatres by days, but was preceded by Fox’s New Faces, which got out a few weeks earlier).

I don’t take for granted that Lucky Me and other Cinemascopes are finally available again after being pretty much lost for the entirety of my lifetime. Warners played it off to surprisingly modest numbers for the remainder of that year. You’d have expected their second Cinemascope release to do better than a final $79,000 in profit. Calamity Jane had scored much higher without the wide process, but it had Secret Love, the kind of smash song hit Lucky Me strived toward, but couldn’t achieve. This was a picture for the moment, and no one anticipated a shelf life beyond tickets sold on strength of a new screen format, and little else. Unlike westerns and actioners, there was little demand for reissues. Newer Doris Days meant newer songs, so why revisit movies with tunes recalled only for having failed to crack the top charts? Lucky Me wound up in the Warner’s syndication dump of 1960 with 122 other post-48 features, many of which would be panned, scanned, and mutilated with commercials --- defying argument that some at least had enduring value. Between general release in 1954 and a largely botched laser disc that sold a few hundred copies in the late eighties, you couldn’t see Lucky Me in scope, let alone with decent color (and inferior Warnercolor used in 1954 remains problematic, even on newly restored disc). Rental prints were "adapted", itself a compromised precursor to letterboxing on TV, except here they cropped substantial information from both sides, with characters spilling off proscribed edges. Films Inc. distributed these in 16mm, and while they did have Cinemascope (and IB Technicolor) prints of many 20th Fox releases (requiring special projection lenses), their 1955-56 catalogue (the relevant page shown here) withheld anamorphic prints of all Warner releases except Mister Roberts and The Silver Chalice. The only way you could rent Lucky Me (at $32.50 per day) and other scope Warner titles was by way of  ersatz "no special lens or screen required" prints. Unwrapping the new DVD, with its stereo tracks restored as well as the frame’s original width, is a revelation and, at long last, a square deal for this modest musical that needs all the help an expanded canvas gives it. I’d like to think the critical reputation of Lucky Me, as well as others like Track Of The Cat, Ring Of Fear, and Land Of The Pharaohs, will be enhanced by proper presentations so long withheld. Early Cinemascope titles have been disadvantaged for too many years. Those of us raised on the husks of these once proud shows can be happy to enjoy them as audiences did when the process was itself the modern miracle of the screen.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Just In Time For Father's Day --- The Katharine Hepburn Collection!

I’ll raise hackles today by perversely celebrating Katharine Hepburn’s centennial rather than John Wayne’s. Well, there goes some core readership, for how many male cineastes sit for feature-length doses of this still-hard-to-digest-even-after-100-years woman? Don’t tell me it’s a matter of taste either. I know I’m in the majority here, at least among males. They’d opt for a needle-nose plier to toenails rather than sustained exposure to Hepburn. At fourteen, when CBS finally ran The African Queen in primetime, I wondered why Bogart didn’t chuck her off the boat, preferably in gator-infested waters. Warner’s DVD set was obtained with less enthusiasm than resignation, so how come me to watch four of them within days of the box’s arrival? Dotage increases tolerance, maybe. Morning Glory is the earliest sampling. Hepburn plays a girl who talks too much and gets on everyone’s nerves. Believe me, she nails it. There’s an extended drunk scene as well (note to aspiring directors --- never permit already irritating actors to do drunk scenes). Champ pre-code seducer Adolphe Menjou is up to old tricks, his coupling with Hepburn mercifully taking place off screen. Jaunty Doug Fairbanks Jr. unaccountably carries a torch, despite her frozen posture whenever he approaches. Though she plays an aspiring actress, we never see Hepburn’s character perform onstage. If she is the Morning Glory, then surely C. Aubrey Smith is Evening’s Triumph, for never was that grand old trouper better than here. What a missed opportunity for RKO to follow up with a vehicle about his character, which I found more sympathetic and compelling than hers. Morning Glory, like most RKO ventures of the time, was finished at a low cost. $239,000 was spent, and $582,000 worldwide came back. A profit of $115,000 put the show in fifth position for RKO’s year behind Little Women, King Kong, Flying Down To Rio, and Son Of Kong. A Hepburn that lost money was the just preceding Christopher Strong, with its inspired casting of Hepburn opposite Colin Clive --- and Helen Chandler’s his daughter. One of the monster kids wrote Hepburn as to what it was like emoting with CC. Her one-sentence reply made me wonder how well she remembered him, if indeed she did at all (it had only been sixty or so years at the time). How could the nonagenarian have imagined they’d be asking about Colin Clive after all that time?

The boxoffice poison label would attach with Sylvia Scarlett and its misbegotten progeny. Until then (1935), the Hepburns did alright. Spitfire, Alice Adams, and Break Of Hearts made money. The Little Minister posted but a minimal loss ($9,000). Sylvia Scarlett was like a snake that kept on biting. Everything the actress did for RKO after this would choke, excepting Stage Door, which may have been saved by Ginger Rogers' presence on the marquee. Hepburn seems more content dressed as a boy in Sylvia Scarlett. Maybe she should have done it more often. The picture actually tumbles when she goes back to being a girl. Like so many comedies (from any era), this one runs out of steam in the last third. Sylvia Scarlett has been called picaresque. So much gender swapping gets knowing snickers now that we’ve had revealing bios of folks involved, but 1935 audiences weren’t hep to insider jokes, so down went Sylvia Scarlett to tune of $363,000 lost. Was it coincidence then to see Hepburn so cruelly caricatured in Warner’s animated Coo-Coo Nut Grove of the same year? The affectations were targeted further by Disney artists in 1938’s Mother Goose Goes Hollywood. By then, it was open season on the actress. Mary Of Scotland, Quality Street, and Bringing Up Baby all failed. Exhibitors called out this Hollywood empress without clothes. You have to give the woman credit for developing a vehicle that would bring back the audience (The Philadelphia Story). Metro starrers in the forties would supplant RKO work that finished Hepburn in the thirties. Three of the MGM’s are included in the DVD box.

The William Powell/Myrna Loy series was more reliable than the Tracy/Hepburns. At least customers knew what they were getting. Metro’s realization of the latter team’s greater success with comedy came slow. As late as 1947, there were still missteps like The Sea Of Grass to frustrate fan expectations of laughs they preferred from these two. All the Tracy/Hepburns at MGM went into profit, however. Without Love showed up in the middle. Wartime concerns are front and center. Scientific work for the allies and a housing shortage encourages the pair to marry for convenience with an understanding there will be no consummation. A saucy proposition for Code-benumbed audiences no doubt led to grosses the highest so far for a Tracy/Hepburn, though it must have been clear to the actress that she needed Tracy far more than he needed her. It was always hard getting any warmth out of Hepburn, and too few leading men seemed able to arouse passion or break through her guard. Was male viewer resentment as acute then, or did it indeed go back to Hepburn’s RKO beginnings? With Garbo and Shearer gone, she might at least have functioned as a second-string Greer Garson, but who to stand in for Walter Pidgeon, when a star so intent on overpowering lead men weaker than Tracy? Solo vehicles would consequently fail. Dragon Seed was a loser even in a year (1944) when civilians seemed to live in movie theatres, and Song Of Love (a million lost) convinced Metro to henceforth not use Hepburn sans Tracy. There was no gesture toward formidable leading men in these --- as Bette Davis once sang, they were either too young or too old --- thus Turhan Bey and Walter Huston in Dragon Seed, Paul Henried (romantic prospects usually nil with him) and Robert Walker.

Undercurrent was Robert Taylor’s welcome back after two years with the service. Patsy Kelly could have co-starred and it would still be a hit. Again Hepburn rode a leading man’s coattails into profit (one million). Undercurrent was a modern dress woman’s gothic and though stylishly directed by Vincente Minnelli, there’s the always-heavy hand of zealous Metro art directors, plus costume changes that seem to take place from shot to shot. Hepburn starts out as Plain Jane (in outfits the actress likely preferred in private life) and is transformed into mid-career Joan Crawford, not a comfortable berth for a player of KH’s temperament (the hat shown here looks borrowed from Medusa). Still she’s believable opposite newly sinister Robert Taylor, whose opening bell this was for a series of disturbed/neurotic characters. The onetime matinee idol seemed given over to ongoing rehab for traumas experienced by a generation of leading men who’d served, his screen characters consigned to moral and psychological twilight relieved only by costume adventures that came along to rescue Taylor in the fifties. Could a volatile onscreen relationship shared by Hepburn and Taylor in Undercurrent reflect the turbulent offscreen association of Hepburn and Tracy? In the wake of assignations with moody (if not dysfunctional) types like Howard Hughes, John Ford, and Spencer Tracy, Hepburn may well have tapped into a well of personal experience when preparing for Undercurrent. The fact it’s one of her better performances without Tracy suggests a closer identification with the character she was playing. Hepburn’s greater conflict, in front of and behind the camera, was with a newcomer she could dismiss but not ignore. Everyone knew Robert Mitchum had something or he wouldn’t have been there. His kind of insouciance was a poke in the eye to veterans who applied strict professional standards on movie sets. The fact he mocked Hepburn for the benefit of crew members (and Mitchum was a wickedly accurate mimic) challenged both the actress and an old guard she represented. Mitchum’s style and the kind of movies he’d make would have little to do with Metro factory methods. A final scene they enact on a piano bench is among the most awkward two players ever shared. Far more tense and effective is Mitchum’s confrontation with Robert Taylor --- the old giving way reluctantly to the new --- and both perhaps knowing it.
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